Coming to terms with a life after sport – or away from sport – is not the exclusive preserve of athletes. It can have a profound effect on anyone who has experienced the challenges, excitement and reward of a career in professional sport, and then finds themselves out in the cold.
My personal experience is a case in point.
The basis of my career has been in sport, initially in journalism and later in consulting and management, predominantly in rugby union.
I have had the privilege of working with some of the biggest and best teams, organisations, coaches, players and competitions in the game. Over the course of almost 20 years, I worked on, or at, three Rugby World Cup tournaments, I was the head of communication at South African Rugby, a member of the Springbok team management, media manager for the Stormers and the World XV, manager of communications and marketing at SANZAR, and Managing Director of a self-founded sports marketing and PR agency, consulting to federations, sponsors, broadcasters and media.
Much like a player, I experienced the thrills of victory and the agony of defeat, only from a different perspective. Where the players’ due was paid in sweat and blood, mine was paid in long days and late nights and, especially in South African rugby, a fair deal of stress. But I didn’t mind, I was doing what I loved most.
I know what it feels like to win a series against the British and Irish Lions, to be part of the Springbok Tri-Nations winning squad, and to win test matches at Twickenham, in Hamilton, Sydney, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Cardiff and Edinburgh. I also know how much it hurts to lose a World Cup quarter-final, or a test match you believed the team could win.
I know that giddy feeling of sitting on the team bus as it arrives at the stadium on match day, wide-eyed fans lining the road looking to catch a glimpse of their idols (of which I was not one of course!), and the rush of singing the National Anthem in front of thousands of fans in the packed stands.
I have experienced the uniqueness of being part of a team with shared values and goals. Of having colleagues who are your best friends, who always have your back, and are happy to offer support and encouragement in tough times.
But, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end.
Through a combination of circumstances, some beyond my control, I found myself having to change direction in my career five years ago. I had to give up a sports management role in Sydney to relocate to Perth. After spending some time in PR consulting mostly in mining, I found myself unemployed for six months, before moving into my current role in higher education.
I continue to live in hope that one day an opportunity might open up for me to return to the industry that I believe best defines me, brings out my best, and allows me to utilise my skills and experience to the fullest.
It is not that I have not tried to get back into sport. And, it has been through these efforts that I appreciate how life must be for an athlete who has scaled heights higher than I could have imagined to wake up one day and find that lifestyle is no longer there.
It can be soul-destroying.
In recent years I have applied for a range of roles without success. Roles that are suited to my communications, media, marketing and commercial skill set. Roles in familiar rugby territory at the Brumbies, Waratahs, the Rebels and Hurricanes. Roles in other sports such as basketball, cycling, hockey, triathlon and the Commonwealth Games, to which my skills could transfer.
I began to doubt myself and question my abilities. I got despondent and depressed. I experienced frustration and anger. I hated myself for decisions I had made. I drank. I put on weight. I lost weight.
I was on a rollercoaster. I would pick myself up for a while but another job setback would knock me back down.
At one stage I seriously started wondering whether it was actually worth carrying on at all.
I would struggle to sleep, and then wake up feeling tired, flat and uninspired. There were days where I thought it was not worth getting out of bed.
Over time, and as I have become accustomed to being out of the sports industry and focussed on gaining new knowledge and developing other skills, life has become better.
I have been able to motivate myself by appreciating and fostering the aspects of my life that give it meaning – my marriage, my children, my family, my social circle and my health – and to focus on the everyday things that I can control. I have been forced to move on with my life.
But sport remains in my DNA.
I still hanker to return to a career in sport and perhaps that golden opportunity will come to me when I least expect it. Until then, I have to be thankful for the opportunities I had, cherish the memories that made it so special, and value the life-long friends I have gained.